Top Secret Rosies and Middle School

On Wednesday, I went to see the film, Top Secret Rosies and participate in a Q & A with the director afterwards. The film is well worth seeing for anyone interested in the beginnings of computing and especially for those interested in women in math and computing.   During the Q & A, someone asked about getting women/girls interested in CS and the director’s response was that they needed to get to girls sooner, preferably middle school.  A couple of people around me poked me.  I wanted to jump up and shout, “Yes!” 

I don’t know that many people that try to teach CS of any kind in middle school, and I, myself, balance teaching applications and skills students need for their other classes and basic computing skills.  I’m especially proud of my sixth graders who work with HTML and CSS and who learn a little about web protocols and how the Internet works.  While that’s not strictly code, it introduces them to the idea that humans tell computers what to do through special languages–and we even talk about binary. 

And we begin learning about the logic of programming in eighth grade through Scratch.  I’m also doing an after school session for 4th and 5th graders where they’ll be doing a little of everything that I do across the middle school.  I’m planting seeds that I hope will grow into my future CS students and our future programmers and problem solvers.

The film made pretty clear that women have a long history of being discouraged from pursing highly technical and mathematical careers.  To some extent, I still see the uphill battle I’m fighting as some girls still tell me how “uncool” is it to be good at computer science.  That makes me sad, and I hope that five years from now, I won’t be hearing that as often.

8 Replies to “Top Secret Rosies and Middle School”

  1. I hear you about the uncool rep, which seems to have broad, deep cultural roots.

    Just ran into it a couple of weeks ago, when the local elementary school asked me to meet with 5/6 graders about computing. The girls visibly disengaged, once the topic was announced. Scratch brought them back, for a minute, but the gendering was already palpable.

  2. I find it true even among all girls, but I think I have a fighting chance with no boys around.

  3. My daughter has been one of two or three girls at computer camps in the summer–and the discouraging she runs into is entirely about peer signaling about both the uncoolness and the notion that it’s not for girls.

    The interesting thing for me is that she very much detached computer culture, new media and so on as a thing to understand and explore, including Scratch and the insight it gives into programming, from math, which she brackets off as too hard.

  4. I have a daughter in 5th grade who loves science and math, and right now, she is the ONLY girl in any of her groups at school in those subjects.

    Please keep posting tips on how to keep girls engaged in the technical subjects. I, myself, disengaged from science/math in middle school and I’m hoping to avoid repeating that path with my daughter.

  5. A fellow teacher recommended this blog post. I agree MS level is a lot easier to introduce simple CS ideas (and have a bit more fun with activities that HS students might roll their eyes at). Scratch (from MIT) is a great resource, as well as Alice 2 (from CMU, but it adds on a 3rd dimension and animated modeling). I have a question regarding your web design. I have considered teaching HTML (as I used to do before the advent of CSS) in MS, but am afraid the complexity CSS adds would not be accessible. Any tips would be appreciated! Thanks!

  6. Tim and Kirsten–I’m so sad to hear of girls at this age detaching already. Tomorrow I begin a program for 4th and 5th graders and we’re starting with a couple of CS Unplugged activities. I will definitely keep you updated on the things we’re doing and what seems to be working.

    Joey–I teach Scratch in 8th grade, but I’m thinking of adding Alice in next year as they seem to pick up Scratch quickly and grow bored. In sixth grade we spend just a couple of days with HTML and CSS. We do the HTML first and build the most basic of web sites. Then we use very basic CSS to do things like change the font size, style and color and change the background color of the page. We switch to a template system–Weebly–and I did have a few students who wanted to customize. They were able to hop into the CSS and change a font color or background color and weren’t afraid of it.

    I’d be happy to share my handouts–just send me an email at

  7. I think if you could figure out a way to explain how specific math operationalizes specific ability to create using computers you would be the ultimate pedagogical goddess. At 4-8th grade, I think the math you’re being asked to do is so far from the operational ability you have with computers that it’s very hard to see the connection. Most math comes off the way that diagramming grammar did to me: a million miles away from what I was doing as a 9th grade writer.

  8. I kind of do that when we do graphics. Suddenly knowing angles is important as is understanding things like radius. In 8th grade, we do some things that require basic algebra to do well and sometimes that sinks in. But . . . math is almost as uncool as CS. Sigh.

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